If a 4 year old child calls the person they just met for the first time their "best friend", we think it's adorable. If a 10 year old child calls the person they just met their best friend, we think they have a social problem.
Parents of children with social learning challenges in mainstream education who have behavior and/or social problems are often told that their children need to learn better "social skills". In "social skills" treatment, the child often participates in behaviorally-based programs that focus on teaching specifically how to behave in different social situations at school, at home and in the community. For example, while in the doctor's waiting room: sit relatively still on a chair, keep yourself occupied with a quiet activity such as by reading a magazine, don't talk to the other patients beyond possibly greeting them, don't ask the receptionist personal questions... etc. But in reality, is the solution so simple as to teach the child a manual of how to behave in each situation?
When I was working as a speech language pathologist in a high school district in 1995 and most of the students on my caseload were those with "social skills problems", I had to re-think what I understood about teaching social skills. My students were worn out and frustrated after years of ineffective treatment. They told me that the "skills" that I, and many others before me, had taught were not helping them become more socially savvy in the real world.
They were right.
This dilemma led me to ponder fundamental questions: "what are social skills" and "what do we need to know to determine how to behave across different social contexts"? Without this knowledge, I felt ill equipped to teach my students the critical information they needed to learn in a manner that was acceptable to them.
Now, after working on these problems for the past 20 years, I wish I could have taught my old students what I know now.
"Social skills" are typically thought of as the behaviors a person demonstrates in a social context. Whether or not that set of behaviors is expected or unexpected (appropriate or inappropriate) in that context affects if others will judge that person as having "good" or "poor" social skills.
Our social behavior is the end result of a complicated and very fast thought process called social thinking. Our behavioral response in every social context is informed by our consideration of the thoughts and feelings of the people around us as well as how we intend to influence them. This means that in the context of going to the doctor's office (to use the previous example), our behavior may be slightly different each time depending on who is around us and what we perceive they are thinking and feeling in that moment. There is no one correct way to act in a doctor's waiting room because the social context is always a little bit different! Sometimes the receptionist may be happy to answer personal questions about herself, especially if you notice a new engagement ring on her finger. Sometimes you can converse with other patients, if they are showing certain signs that they are interested in talking to you. With this in mind, it suddenly becomes clear that for students to "behave well" requires that they be sensitive to the situation and the people in the situation in order for them to socially problem solve how to produce the "expected behavior".
3-step process to teaching social thinking and related skills:
For parents, professionals and students (who are high school age or older) we explain that there are three distinct parts to the process of socially engaging or sharing space well with others:
1. Engage in social thinking:Social thinking is the ability to consider your own and others thoughts, emotions, beliefs, intentions, knowledge, etc. In other terms, it is the culmination of executive functioning, perspective taking, and self-awareness that enables you to interpret and understand the social situation and what behaviors are expected of you.
Remember that your behavioral-response is directly influenced by your social thinking. Social behaviors that align or fail to align with what other people expect in that situation determines how others judge your "social skills". Improving your social thinking ability is a life-long learning process, and the key to developing chameleon-like social skills.
2. Adapt your behavior effectively (social skills)
Based on the results of your social thinking, adapt your behavior to consider the thoughts and feelings of others, as well as to communicate your intentions in the situation. By doing so, people are more likely to react and respond to you in the manner you had hoped (see below).
3. Be aware of others' reactions:People emotionally respond to our behaviors very quickly. If we feel a person has good social skills we may describe them as "polite" and "friendly"; if person has weak, awkward, or poor social skills we often describe them as "rude", "odd" or "impolite". The terms "polite", "rude", "friendly", "impolite", etc., represent how we emotionally perceive another's behavior. We are far better at summarizing our feelings (emotional response) than we are at describing intellectually the behaviors a person produced that swayed how we felt. How people respond to our behavior often leads to how they treat us in return.
In short, our social skills influence how people feel about us and how we, in turn, feel about them. This cycle also influences how we feel about ourselves and can directly impact our confidence and mental health!
Social Thinking encourages social problem solving:
As complex as all this is, we can drill this down to say that social skills are not simply rehearsed, memorized and produced based on a singular stimulus or context. Having good social skills simply means one is able to adapt effectively based on the situation and the people in the situation. Our social skills are part of our social problem solving. We use them when we are simply sharing space with others, as when we may be quietly sitting together in a room, or when engaged in more direct social interactions. We use our social thinking and related social skills any time we are around people, whether we plan to interact or not. We also use our social thinking even when we may not be in the active presence of others, such as when we are watching movies, shows, sports, the news, driving our cars, writing an essay, a text, an email, or reading a novel – all of which require you to think about other peoples' perspectives about the situation.
Social thinking impacts not only a student's social success, but his/her academic success, too. Classroom academic assignments frequently tap into our social knowledge, often without our noticing. It would be impossible for a student to meet academic standards (Common Core or State based) related to reading comprehension and written expression; or participate in group-based learning activities if they didn't have adequate social thinking skills to accurately interpret instructions or take the perspective of others.
Our social skills are not directly taught as much as they are a by-product of our considering our own and other's perspectives and our related social goals. Our ability to synchronize all this information impacts others' impressions of us as well as how they treat us. How people treat us, in turn, affects how we feel about ourselves.
My students in 1995 were right to be frustrated. They intuitively understood that being taught how to behave in social contexts was not adequate; they needed to learn how to think socially based on the situation and the people in the situation. In effect, they needed to learn social thinking. The work I have created over the past 20 years is to honor all that they taught me.